Hangmen - Reviews

 

Barry Purchese         Bod Ryder       Simon Jenner


Review by Barry Purchese

The play opens, appropriately enough, with a hanging. The condemned man, Hennessy (Harry Morris), protests not only his innocence but, bizarrely, his disappointment at not being despatched by Britain's best known executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.

As he struggles Syd, the hangman's assistant (Scott Roberts) fusses and tuts telling him that if he'd just try to relax he could've been dead by now, bringing the first laugh of many from the audience. Syd is trying in his own way to be kind but Harry Wade, Britain's second best hangman is not a man for debate. He brings an abrupt end to such nonsense with the aid of a cosh and with Hennessy now subdued it is back to business as normal.

Harry is a vain and fatuous man, puffed out with his own self importance and we next see him in 1965 on the day his work has just been made illegal. The day capital punishment is abolished.

Michael Folkard's set, constructed by Simon Glazier, George Walter and John Everett, takes us to the pub Harry runs in Oldham. In a dingy bar redolent of a bygone age Harry holds court with his regulars. Men easily bought with a pint, their world horizons stretching no further than the pub door, they take their lead from Harry and act as a sort of chorus, except that with Pat Boxall's direction and some fine performances each character is an individual in his own right.

Tobias Clay's Charlie is a man with nothing original to say but he doesn't let that stop him from saying it. Arthur (John Tolputt) is deaf and misses a lot, but when he does speak is as blunt as a coal hammer and spares no-one in his assessment of them. Bill (Jason Lever) tries to hide behind bluff and cliches but shows in his more vulnerable moments that he knows who he really is and Nick Pearson's Inspector Fry is an essentially decent copper undermined by his own laziness and trying desperately to cling on to some self respect.

However, for all that they hang on Harry's every word there persists an underlying feeling that, like the hanged man Hennessy, they are disappointed not to be dealing with the main man and the callow young journalist (Jack Dean) slyly gets Harry to finally open up about his work by goading him with Pierrepoint's name.

In truth Harry doesn't need much provoking as he dismisses the barbarism of the electric chair, “this is Lancashire, not Arkansas” and puts Pierrepoint's greater tally of victims down to the fact that he hanged a lot of Nazis in Germany, “if it hadn't been for that we'd have been neck and neck.”

There is no doubt though that Harry, superbly brought to life by Martin Malone, holds centre stage in his own confined space. This is a man whose high opinion of himself is unshakeable and his narrowness is willingly echoed by his acolytes. They regard their views as sacrosanct and don't take kindly to having them questioned. Enter Mooney (Nick Balfe).

“I'm not from round here”, he tells them and that much is obvious when he asks, “Have you read much Kierkegaard? Has that question ever been asked in Oldham?” From the outset he is in the face of every single one of them rejecting their insular certainties by challenging everything anyone says.

Mooney is relentlessly genial but there is something of the diabolical about him, his every utterance sounding both weirdly charming but also ominous. He homes in on fifteen year old Shirley (Laura Scobie), provocatively asking her if she ever gets sand in her swimsuit and therefore her more private parts. He tells her he is just sand. And he is. The grit in the well oiled (literally) bigotry of the pub regulars, He niggles and he contradicts but all with a smile. He tells Shirley he is shy. On his own he chuckles to himself, “Shy. Fuck me.”, as though nothing could be further from the truth. He is a a man who misbehaves and prides himself on never getting caught. Whatever his intentions are he seems to be in no hurry to carry them out.

This changes when Syd, Harry's old assistant, makes an appearance from the past. His festering resentment at having been patronised and sacked by Harry has bubbled to the surface and he shows himself to be something more than a stammering simpleton as he reveals to Mooney that he has a plan to take Harry down.

It is at this point that Mooney stops being 'vaguely' menacing and becomes what he calls 'definitely' and Syd calls 'specifically' menacing. Mooney has the measure of them all and we wait with baited breath to see how this will play out. He is using them but to what end?

Harry's wife Alice (Nikki Dunsford) seems perpetually bewildered, numbed by a married lifetime to her braying braggart of a husband. However, a brief glimpse of the darker side of Mooney jerks her from her emotional inertia. She warns the others about him and sets off an unexpected chain of events which even involves an appearance from Albert Pierrepoint himself (Andy Bell).

Hangmen is a play about retribution and the use and abuse of vengeance but its caustic humour has us guiltily laughing from start to finish. This is Martin McDonagh on top form and he is admirably served throughout by director Pat Boxall and her fine cast.

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Review by Bob Ryder

It’s a difficult business trying to schedule a theatre programme while a pandemic has been raging all around. (It was a headache for Shakespeare too, of course, back in the day.) But out of adversity can come some wonderful surprises.

Hot on the heels of an excellent Lieutenant of Inishmore this winter, NVT have given us a superb production of Martin McDonagh’s much more recent play Hangmen. This production had to be postponed from a previous season; but happily the chance to see these two works, by a first-rate modern playwright, just a couple of months apart - and to see them performed so well - has been a real treat.

Hangmen is just as dark as any of McDonagh’s plays - and also just as laugh-out-loud. There are sly shades of Pinter and perhaps even more of Joe Orton. (For example, as filthy humour goes, the hilarious “finding the car keys” gag is pure gold, giving a new twist to “corpsing on stage”.) Its world is very particular: a country - our own, two generations ago - where Public Executioner was a recognised if feared profession, and where his natural retirement job would be to rule the roost as landlord of a tatty pub full of dead-beats. Pat Lyne’s production really nailed the strange dark humour of it all, as well as conjuring the necessary sense of place and the common social attitudes of the time.

Michael Folkard’s set design perfectly caught the feeling of the pub interior, while also creating the feeling - with dark space on both down-stage sides - of a little world in its own bubble. The design also enabled a strong prelude scene, set in a condemned prisoner’s cell. Strat Mastoris’ lighting design was suitably atmospheric - as was the costume team’s excellent judgement, across the whole cast, reinforcing all the right impressions about time, place and social class. Set construction, décor and props were all of a high standard; and once again NVT’s stage management team handled a lot of work smoothly and seamlessly.

The cast of this play’s characters is predominantly male (13m 2f). The two main protagonists are Harry, the hangman-cum-pub-landlord, and Mooney - an unexpected London intruder into the small world of the urban Lancashire pub. These were two strong performances, from Martin Malone and Nik Balfe respectively. Malone established a big presence, and the right sense of a nasty personality, bullying but also weak, stupid and cowardly. Balfe turned in another confident and skilful performance, following two other big ‘dangerous’ roles for NVT recently.

The other male performers were well cast and did a fine job. Scott Roberts was outstanding as the sad and creepy Syd; and a tattered trio of “bar flies” were strangely delightful - a kind
of Greek Chorus consigned to the purgatory of a clapped-out Oldham pub, where it’s always 1965. Good work too from Nick Reason as a dodgy drinking detective. Among the other men, there’s just space to mention Jack Dean, as a not-so-callow “cub reporter” for the local rag. It’s a well-written role and he judged the playing of it very well indeed.

And though heavily outnumbered, the two female roles were brilliantly played. Nikki Dunsford gave a flawless performance as Alice, long-suffering landlady wife of the bastard Harry. And Laura Scobie shone as their put-down daughter, Shirley. She evoked our sympathy, then our concern, and finally our pleasure when she emerges safe, well and wiser - and with a better future perhaps ahead of her than the rest of the characters. And I guess that’s as near to a happy ending as we’re likely to get in most Martin McDonagh plays.

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Review by Simon Jenner

It’s as if somewhere around 2015 Martin McDonagh and Jez Butterworth did a swap. Whilst Butterworth wrote a huge-cast Irish play, The Ferryman, premiered in May 2017, McDonagh assembled an equally huge (sixteen) cast and eighteen months earlier set his Hangmen in Oldham. They’re both set in the past too. And both bid to be masterpieces.

Admittedly McDonagh’s occasionally set works outside Ireland whereas Butterworth hasn’t essayed anywhere but England till The Ferryman courted murmurs of transgression. Butterworth doesn’t colonise Ireland with much of his laconic humour, but McDonagh brings all his to bear on the north, with southern mockers. It’s a mordantly funny play. They deal with summary death differently too.

NVT have mounted two McDonagh plays in three months; part of an ongoing affinity with Irish works that here score two hits.

Hangmen cruises towards small classic status. Is it justified? Using the Theatre Upstairs director Pat Boxall. makes the most of the differently-proportioned play with its prequel cell scene and pub, a masterly naturalism designed by Michael Folkard with a dowdy cream and greenish-walled pub set at angles to the stage, with a full bar, some chairs stage right and left; and a door stage left.

The play’s no simple re-examination of period attitudes, but a refraction of fresh techniques turned period in exploring second-best hangman, Martin Malone’s Harry Wade. The Ortonesque – both farce and character – explodes at the prologue’s hanging in 1963 of the luckless ‘I’m innocent’ Hennessey (a fine cameo from Harry Morris), a black comedy where ‘if you let go you can die more quickly’, and two years later in the main action of 1965, embodied in the wannabe-lodger-and-menacer Mooney.

The brief 1963 scene alone features Guy Dixon and Louis Ryan as almost-mute guards, Andy Bell as a wholly mute Governor in his first role, Tristan Wolfe’s fearful Doctor, obeying the hangman in everything. There’s virtually no doubling; a kind of luxury.

Malone’s Harry struts alpha-male for most of the length, dominating ex-colleague Scott Roberts’s Syd he’d had dismissed for mentioning the length of a gangster’s penis, and even the local Inspector (small) Fry (Nick Reason) as well as his pub’s regulars, kow-tow.

These three other regulars, Jason Lever’s alcoholic but shrewd Bill, Tobias Clay’s peacemaking but sometimes voluable Charlie and John Tolputt’s magnificently deaf and foot-in-mouth Arthur are chorus to Wade, acting in concert.

In a different way, so’s Jack Dean’s amiable but shrewd newspaperman Clegg, also bewitched by Wade but happy to play his game and get a scoop. He affords a clean-cut contrast to Mooney.

Reason’s Chief Inspector visibly sheds authority from his initial attempts to browbeat Nikolas Balfe’s Mooney, to being treated with contempt by Wade. It’s a fine-grained degrading. Roberts as the pathetic, stuttering Syd exhibits a masterclass of approval-seeking, both from Wade and Mooney, as we discover, with more resources than appears. Roberts makes you flinch mesmerically as he projects Syd’s spaniel-like fearfulness and calculating streak.

It’s how this culture fans out into family, and the consequences, that render layers of sexist and racist assumptions McDonagh mainlines into the narrative. Nikki Dunsford, Harry’s bored wife has reason to suspect Harry’s best erections were with a noose; Dunsford exudes a calm critical resignation, centring some of the action and enjoying a flirty moment with Balfe’s Mooney before things sour.

The couple’s big daughter Shirley is an eventually explosive Laura Scobie who bellows out her shyness, interested in one thing just as men are, she later confirms. From her initial ‘mope’ mode to parents, and hunched response to Balfe’s Mooney, Scobie blossoms magnificently, all mouth and declamation.

Harry’s interview damning rival Pierrepoint might impress locals, but not his family. It doesn’t impress Pierrepoint either.

Enter the Pinter-tinged Ortonesque of Mooney’s two-dimensional ‘menace’ as he likes to impress on the luckless assistant hangman Syd. But Balfe’s bravura of braggadocio is a truly cocksure performance and gives Mooney a dimension.

As sinister charmer Balfe gives Mooney enough rope by insinuating he might be the murderer of the woman Hennessey was hanged for, and has now kidnapped Shirley. His lies might come back to choke his floridly suggestive arabesques.

The first Act seems a touch formulaic, quoting 1960s techniques and dramatists with little spin; and McDonagh’s given Wade little amplitude here but to prove the gangster isn’t the biggest prick: though how the men measure themselves against Wade and he to Pierrepoint signals much of the play’s drive and wit.

Malone’s magnificent front is a little confined till the second half where anger, grief, loss of control and his profession play over his character to more affective ends. Malone’s response is to show this subtly, not allowing the front to crack. So his actions speak louder.

The second act’s three great strokes, bar the opening, transform the drama to something masterly. A threatened hanging of Mooney (gotta have a gimmick, here it’s hanging); then Pierrepoint’s entry which complicates interrogation since Mooney’s shrouded by a curtain. Pierrepoint drags the chair further and further away, refuting the inference that his hair smells of death; all including Harry cower before a bigger bully to sniff it. Then the coup of a great tirade from an as unexpected quarter as Pierrepoint.

Bell returning in this role isn’t as cued with the thunderstroke of the original Royal Court production, transferring to Wyndham’s. The grand guignol of that is missing and Bell needs to make his presence felt without it, which he does. The original production boasts a more McDonagh-like menace, but Bell and Boxall have returned to the text and arguably find less reach-me-McDonagh stereotype in it. Bell makes his relatively brief appearance tell though.

Lighting by Strat Mastoris is as ever consummate, confined here to the cell scenes and pub bar-light. Costumes by Richi Blennerhassett and Cathy Waring are superbly in-period from Warder uniform through the different ties bow and regular, of the hangmen and the northern clobber of the regulars and the smooth mid-sixties tailoring of Mooney. Sound design by Ian Black enjoys a particularly vivid thunderstorm or two, torrential rain (nice touches too as the cast duck in from it) and period music.

All these second-act coups are masterstrokes, though Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World also comes to mind, as well as Butterworth’s Mojo and proleptically The Ferryman; and a bit of The Long Good Friday for the hanging. If The Ferryman has to be a tragic masterpiece or fail (it doesn’t) then McDonagh’s way with violence is more equivocal, more troubling. It’s why Hangmen doesn’t settle too comfortably. That dark puckishness recalling Synge is more knowing, more rooted in tragic laughter.

Malone does get the opportunity to nuance in the second half; so does wife Dunsford eyeing her husband in a new, even more unsavoury light. But the end when Harry lets go of his true profession, is true tragi-comedy. ‘I miss it’ he cries, touches more than Orton would: McDonagh’s distinction resonates in a manner peculiar to him alone.